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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Thanksgiving: A Meditation on the Chicken Incident

A. E. Nee raised a question in this blog last week in which the bestiality of the chicken-on-chicken violence was an illustration, or perhaps an icon through which she pondered the mysterious spectrum of violence revealed to her by the Pace e Bene textbook. To begin with, she explained, a neighborhood cat attacked one of our chickens, but later, other chickens kept pecking open the wound. After a period of isolation when the chicken showed considerable healing, it seemed appropriate to reunite the chicken with the others. But for the second time the chicken was found with open wounds. At this, A. E. Nee forced her frustration under the cold light of reason. She asked, was it instinctual of the chickens, and if so, what about the cognitive dissonance—for one feels certain that such behavior is “violent”. One way out from this impasse suggested itself by implication: could we only speak of their behavior as violent in the limited sense of a metaphor? Going further, she focused on the gradient of intention. Real violence, she concluded, seems to differ from metaphorical violence to the degree it reflects a meditated intention of doing harm to another.

At the outset, most obvious was the fact of a single victim. The victimhood was more complicated because in the scenario their were not only multiple attackers but two classes of attackers. A further difficulty was the limited certainty which we had as bystanders. All of us could look in sympathy at the wounded chicken and curse with indignation at her apparent victimization. Among us, only one had been in a position to swear that a cat had attacked the chicken. Another could confirm recent sightings of a cat, whose identity we all readily accepted as the neighborhood “feral” cat. Indeed, presumably the cat was what we called feral, but what excuse could we find for genus-on-genus violence?

Ascribing blame to the cat, one community member confessed having the will to kill the cat. Upon scrutiny, said member owned the violence of said action and shrugged, rather than recant the effusive statement. Each of us present in the kitchen had complicity, I would argue, because none of us stepped back to reconsider the blame we placed on the cat. Levi Strauss said that a word spoken cannot be unsaid. The expressed intention to kill the cat, for instance, can not be “unsaid”. Nor can our collective failure, by omission, to sufficiently challenge this expressed intention.

I have hope that reflection is a remedy for this complicity. Fortunately, A. Knee raised her question on the blog by which she revisited the obvious facts, including the multiple attackers who, apparently, were responsible for perpetrating violence on the victim. As she pointed out, a cat is a cat; a chicken is a chicken; but humans alone have judgment, and thus we carry responsibility for our actions and failure to act. Real violence pertained only to each of our responses to the wounded chicken. On the one hand, violence sprung from our collective misperception. All of us failed to correctly perceive the situation. Perhaps our perception of the wound met with our inner experiences of hurt. Perhaps our feelings of anger sprung from this transference. Our sympathetic reaction was only human, but what do we mean by “human”? Speaking of our humanity in contrast with animals, philosophers of androcentric persuasion emphasize our capacity of reason. The eventual “birth” of psychology first sprung from the warped minds of privileged men…who would have us believe that specious reasoning is white collared crime compared to emotive irrationality. In this view, we should accept our guilt by correcting our flaws of logic. Why did we hastily ascribing guilt to the cat and then the chickens? Because we fallaciously attributed them with human qualities. As a result of our anthropomorphic sympathy, we saw violence where none existed.

To our credit, I did not sense that any of us felt guilty. At least, not guilt in the sense of a need to relieve ourselves of error. If we felt “guilty” then it may better fit the description of the need to have security or be in harmony with one’s world. I sensed a collective responsibility for the self-evident harm done to the chicken. Whereas it might have manifest itself in one community member’s expression of ill will toward the cat, few of us could muster a rebuke for good reason. We saw the expression as just that, a superficial—if vulgar—expression . In essence, our lack of resistance had everything to do with our relationship with the speaker, whose words we could read in that larger context. Despite the vulgarity of what a linguist might term the “propositional content”, the member spoke for all of us a message of deeper meaning. Violent? No, although the words had a forcefulness, the vulgarity served a greater purpose. It reflected what the community felt at bottom, that like the chicken, we too had been violated. Candor has the power of violence to agitate us; but an insensate verb like “kill” requires skillful use in order to convey a shock and awe that redeems the one who hears it; only then can the candor of a pejorative term or the potency of a cuss word be said to loving. Even then, for a perfection of nonviolence some will still seek an alternative in the pursuit of an unmistakable word. I wish them luck. Evil loves to hide beneath the skirt of a euphemism.

Biologists and behavioral scientists have made needed renovations to the antique notion of guilt. The latter assess the import of our felt sympathy with the bird. They tell us that those of us laying blame on the cat did so flaws sprung from our incapacity to halt the mind from intruding memories. In turn, these set off our unique defense mechanisms. Again, we’re talking about nanosecond responses of our human designs to ward off hurt or perceived aggression. White feathers splattered with fire engine red is a vision that biologists tell us inevitably evokes the brain functions in us most primal. These trigger the body to prepare with instantaneous injections of adrenaline to fight or make flight. Since these override superior brain functions for calculation or discernment, our expression of sympathy has little to do with the behavior that is premeditated, and therefore, in this view, a sentiment to “kill” must be appraised in view of the circumstances. Where these reveal a lack of depth, made apparent by a stark contrast with a consistent pattern, then the sentiment expressed cannot adequately reflect the full humanity of the speaker. On the other hand, praiseworthy and culpable expressions are those revealing a concentrated pretext.

As a diversion consider this: If men and women were fundamentally different, or if they were at least believed to be fundamentally different when the authors of the Constitution wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal…that to secure these rights Governments were created by men.” Can you see where I’m going? Law reflects society. As Thomas Jefferson wrote: “laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As this becomes more advanced, more enlightened, manners and opinions change. With changing circumstances institutions must also advance.” Fortunately, fewer and fewer hold the belief that men and women are fund_mentally different. I long for the day we take for granted our sameness.

Now consider with me the Eucharist, through the lens of the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, as we approach the protest of SOA, one week before Thanksgiving.

The Eucharist confounds people for good reason. Linguists know it has something to do with being good. Among them Noam Chomsky could remind us, truthfully, how it’s meaning stems from the Jewish tradition of Passover. Therefore, before we skip forward to receive communion, with each step we could recall the times of Egyptian repression and then how Moses heralded glad tidings of God’s faithfulness to the Israelites. Every step forward to receive communion can become a way of renewing our memory of the ten plagues, culminating in the ultimate, the massacre of first born, innocents. Thus, to look forward to consume the body and blood of Jesus Christ renews our memory of all antecedent tragedy, to the tenth degree, the loss of innocence. With each step toward the altar we could stare-in-the-face how the crucifixion of innocence has posthumous meaning: in the delivery of the Israelites out of the mano dura regime of Pharoah and eventually into the Promised land…in Christ’s resurrection!

Something to do with being good? Yes, the Eucharist confounds people for good reason. We actually believe that part about good reason, even as we stare-in-the-face tragedy such as the loss of innocence. The Greek minded linguist recognizes, (and here I am using the word “recognize” in a technical sense), goodness in the event of taking communion. Based on the linguist’s sense of “eu”. As we know, the prefix “eu” gives the meaning of “good or well” as derived from the Greek root. The linguist knows this not only intellectually, she knows this relationally in the form of community bonds and stewardship of Creation. Her own thriving sense of the “eu” will also derive from her inner experience of God’s love or perish to the extent she neglects her own sense of self.

In conclusion, a Catholic Church must recall its sense of self. We do this today during the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul by reflecting on two dynamic ways of leading faithful lives. In our own sense of calling we can also reflect a homeostasis and an outward bounding evangelism, which these saints represent. Stay true to our faith in Kairos, in communion, both privately and publically. To the end that Christ led them, both ways for which they are emblems do us this forceful expression. They kill our sense of complacency by showing us the necessity of a life that embraces persecution for the sake of the Kin_dom.

Our lives are lived most fully in appreciation, yet this necessitates confessing sorrow too. As George Washington said in calling for a holiday of Thanksgiving, two hundred years before the Atlacatl Battalion stormed the Jesuit residence at the UCA, we need a day “that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions;-- to enable us all, whether in publick or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people”

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